Women Talking, an award-winning, international best-selling novel by Miriam Toews, was adapted into a screenplay and directed by filmmaker Sarah Polley. The star-studded cast includes Frances McDormand (Scarface), Claire Foy (Salome Friesen), Jessie Buckley (Mariche Loewen), and Rooney Mara (Ona Friesen).
The film, which won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2023 Academy Awards, takes place as a group of women from a fictitious ultra-conservative Mennonite community hold a meeting in a barn. In a distanced Socratic debate, they question whether they should do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. More than 100 of their women and girls, aged three-65, were raped over four years as they were drugged with narcotic spray used to anesthetize cattle.
The women in the film discuss not only if they should leave individually, but whether all the women and children should leave en masse.
The choice to leave one’s community is highly complex. For any woman abused, this might be the most difficult decision she’ll ever make. The women in the film discuss not only if they should leave individually, but whether all the women and children should leave en masse. At one point, the women debate at what age boys become predators. At first, they have a rule that no boys over 12 can accompany them on their journey, but then they raise the age to 15. The decision about whether they will take their sons with them seems impossible for a mother to make. The women’s dialogue highlights questions of morality, religion, and gender.
For me, the decision to leave was grueling. I grew up in a similar isolated community, but mine was Sufi. Sufism is considered the spiritual side of Islam, though many Sufis practise without adhering to Islamic principles. I grew up in a fundamentalist community in the ’80s and ’90s. Our leader built a 150-acre compound in the Hill Country of Texas. The closest store, Piggly Wiggly, was a 20-minute drive away. There was one way in and one way out, and no one left the property without permission. The adults worked on the property and all forms of media were banned.
The leaders isolated us to control us fully. They monitored every aspect of our lives, including what we ate, when and how much we slept, and our relationships, such as who and when we’d marry. The girls in our community grew up without formal education since the leaders wouldn’t allow us to go to public school for fear that we’d learn the devil’s ways. Our education was primarily memorizing religious texts and learning incessant prayers.
For me, the decision to leave was grueling.
The boys and men of the community raped the girls repeatedly and without sanctions. I was married at 12. Most of my commune sisters were married by 14. Eventually, each of us would have to choose to stay or go. Many of us would escape our cult without education or social connections. I was living in London, working as our cult leader’s domestic servant, when I finally fled. I was 20. Later I learned this is a common age for girls to flee isolated communities.
Like the women in the film, Toews was brought up in a Mennonite community. She grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba, and left when she was 18. She later learned about the ghost rape stories of Manitoba Colony, an ultraconservative Mennonite community in Bolivia, which instantly haunted her and served as inspiration for her seventh novel, Women Talking.
The “ghost rapes” occurred between 2005-2009, where women and girls would wake up with blood between their legs, covered in semen and bruises, with ripped clothes and underwear missing, without memories of what happened because they’d been anesthetized. The rapists left women and girls terrorized and pregnant. Many kept their assaults a secret and thought they were spiritual attacks by ghosts or the devil. When some of the women finally spoke out, they were called liars, adulterers, and hysterical; some were told that the rapes were their “wild imaginations.”
Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave?
In 2009, two men were caught breaking into a house and were questioned by the community’s council. A total of nine men were turned in to Bolivian law enforcement. In 2011, seven men were convicted of drugging and raping over 130 girls and women between the ages of three-65, and an eighth man, the veterinarian who supplied the anesthetic spray, was also sentenced to jail time.
Women Talking occurs as the community’s men go into the city to post bail for the assailants. Three generations of women across two families meet in a hayloft with 24 hours ticking to decide their imagined futures and answer the quintessential options facing abuse victims. Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave?
The women weren’t taught to read or write, so Ona, a woman who is pregnant by one of the rapists, asks August Epps, a young man (and her love interest) to take minutes of the meeting. August, whose parents had been ex-communicated from the community, had lived in the U.K. and attended university. Later, he was allowed to return to the community to educate the boys. Although August narrated Toews’ novel, the film changed the point of view and handed the narration to Autje, one of the women’s teenage daughters.
The cinematography is bleak, evoking a feeling of colours being stripped from life. Although set in 2010, the setting feels a lifetime away, with the women dressed in long homemade dresses. Even though the mood is somber, there are highlights of humour, mainly between the two younger girls, who spend a lot of time giggling and, at one point, plait their braids together.
In Women Talking, the impact of abuse on women’s lives and families is represented in a variety of ways. One woman is pregnant by one of the rapists. Another woman, Greta, is missing her teeth, after they were knocked out for crying during an attack. One woman had to walk to town for one-and-a-half days to get her daughter antibiotics. And despite the women being brought up in an insular community where they were taught to think alike, they come to the meeting with differing viewpoints. Their stories provide nuance, asserting that no two victims are alike—each person responds uniquely to trauma.
The film ends with the women walking down the road and in horse carriages to begin lives separate from the men and boys of their community. Although it’s a bleak climactic moment, the women appear to be on the brink of change, seemingly ready to gallop off into their bright futures. While the ending seems hopeful because they’ve left their abusers, the film doesn’t show the aftermath.
The tireless challenges of victims begin after they leave, as I discovered in 1992.
Deciding to leave is just the first of a series of treacherous steps. The tireless challenges of victims begin after they leave, as I discovered in 1992. After I escaped the cult leader and my husband, I worked as a waitress before enrolling in university, where I initially became a part-time student, taking language, history, political science, and women’s studies courses to begin to make sense of what had happened—to deconstruct my life. I continued to work in various positions on campus but suffered because of low wages and loss of community.
I didn’t have mentors or friends. I didn’t know how to speak to professors, study for college-level courses, or how to write research papers. I felt alone and inept. I was missing skills others had been taught from an early age and was clueless on how to think critically since the whole goal of the cult was to turn us into sheep. Socially, I was stunted. So many questions arose. Could I wear shorts? Short sleeves? Would God punish me for making friends with girls from the outside? My very identity was shaken. Who was I if I wasn’t a follower?
As a second-year student, I met someone in class and we became romantically involved. Because I’d been raised in a purity culture, I agreed to marry him within a couple of months. I didn’t have time to get to know him, and without years of therapy to untangle my past and patterns, unsurprisingly, the cycle of abuse continued full force. My marriage quickly turned violent and I was once again trapped. I remained with my second husband for an excruciating 18 years until I gathered the strength to leave.
The women in the fictionalized community depicted in Women Talking had each other. However, most women who leave extremist or abusive environments go solo without the support of anyone. They must begin their new lives alone. When the girls and women in my cult ran away, they fled without education—not even a GED. Victims of domestic violence often leave without money and material objects, sometimes with only the clothes on their backs. In Women Talking, the women rode off with whatever they could fit in their carriages, including live chickens—but how long will six chickens feed 50 women?
Like the women in the Manitoba colony, the girls in my community had no experience with the outside world. With dresses stretched to our ankles and long braided hair, our innocence ensured our confinement. We’d rarely exited the metal gates that entrapped us, and no one apart from our community members could enter. We were the protected people, the beloved of God. As such, we were taught that all people from the outside were unbelievers going to hell.
From early childhood, we were taught that if we chose to cross to the other side, we’d head straight to hell too; being an apostate was worse than being an unbeliever. Deciding to leave would not only mean saying farewell to all we knew, but it would mean being torn from our religion, spirituality, and God, since belief and community are cruelly ensnarled.
Women should leave abusive environments if and when they’re ready, but the ramifications of leaving shouldn’t be ignored. We often leave the only homes we’ve ever known. We leave our families, whom we love dearly. We leave behind security, stability, and a sense of belonging. The difficulty of going increases tenfold for those hidden from society, living without television, books, and phones. Nothing prepares us for what we’ll encounter.
Women should leave abusive environments if and when they’re ready, but the ramifications of leaving shouldn’t be ignored.
For those born into or raised within religious extremism, we never really escape. No matter how far we travel, indoctrination follows us. This isn’t to say healing can’t happen because it does, but it takes time and resources to get on our feet. And therapy. The unravelling of being brought up in a cult is a lifetime plight, not a one-and-done. Leaving is a struggle that lasts a lifetime.
Deciding to leave my child marriage and cult was the most difficult decision of my life. I left behind the man I thought I loved, my community, my dreams. When I decided to go to university, I started slowly, taking two classes in my first semester. Almost 20 years later, I graduated with a PhD in social sciences as an applied linguist, researching how language is used to manipulate vulnerable populations.
I can’t imagine my life had I not decided to leave, but I wouldn’t wish my journey on anyone.
Every step along the way was a struggle. I can’t imagine my life had I not decided to leave, but I wouldn’t wish my journey on anyone. I turned 50 this year, and it’s been 30 years since I escaped, but I continue to struggle with finances, intimate relationships, and belonging. The day I left was the turning point in my story, but what would come would be my heroine’s journey. This is where my arc began, where change occurred, and I thawed my identity to Tamara.
Each of the three options the women in the film contemplate carry consequences. There is no universal answer and each woman must choose for herself. But once a woman decides to escape, she must have resources ready because she’ll likely leave without education, money, or family. As a society, we must be waiting with open arms, willing to flood survivors with a sense of community and everything they need to begin their new lives, so they can ride off into the sunset, not only with caged chickens to sustain them, but with a map for freedom.
Tamara MC is a cult, child marriage, and human trafficking survivor/activist and advocates worldwide for girls and women to live free from gender-based violence. She is currently finalizing her debut memoir, Child Bride. Follow her at @TamaraMCPhD. Send her a message to sign up for her email list or to have her speak at your organization.